Mold in Universities Harms Students: How to Improve Classroom Air

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February 2, 2022

Is the indoor air quality at universities and colleges impacting student health and academic performance? Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that the answer is “yes.” A big reason for this is the widespread presence of mold in classrooms and residence halls.

What are the health risks? And how can campus leadership and facility experts take action to prevent this?

Existing Indoor Air Quality Problems at Universities

Many universities were not incredibly healthy environments for human beings before the pandemic. In too many places, the norm was: older buildings, unhealthy air quality, pest issues, and mold. According to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, schools should improve ventilation “to the extent possible,” by opening windows and doors if they can do that safely.”

The guidelines also urge schools to consider upgrading ventilation systems in order to deliver more clean air and dilute contaminants. Dr. Walensky says that improving HVAC systems would help with other public needs beyond COVID-19, such as reducing asthma and reducing exposure to mold issues.

How Mold in School Classrooms Proliferates

Here’s the thing about mold: it requires oxygen, water, and a source of food to grow. There are molds that can grow on almost anything, including wood, paper, carpet, foods, and insulation. Because of this, controlling moisture is the key to managing mold.

Mold grows when airborne mold spores land on a damp “food source” and begin digesting it in order to survive. The water required for mold growth can enter campus buildings and portable classrooms through leaky roofs, pipes, windows, foundations, and other structural openings. Water may also enter classrooms or residence halls due to floods, poor drainage, or mis-directed sprinklers. Mold can even enter via biomaterial (food or fluids)transported in by faculty or students.

Classrooms, offices, and building corridors often harbor mold spores and dust mites, as do ventilation systems. Moisture problems in universities can also result from scheduled maintenance activities or conditions during spring or winter breaks such as:

  • Increased moisture due to painting or carpet cleaning
  • High humidity during the summer months
  • No air conditioning in classrooms or heating system operation (or reduced use) when school is not in session

Common Symptoms of Mold Exposure at Universities

Mold in residence halls and classrooms affects staff and students alike, particularly those with respiratory problems. Mold can lead to a range of adverse health effects, including:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Irritated eyes
  • New or worsening asthma
  • Flu symptoms
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

Less common symptoms include fever, vomiting, nausea, nosebleeds, dizziness, memory loss, diarrhea or constipation, and changes in behavior. Not everyone has the same symptoms, and some are not bothered at all.

Other symptoms may be related to exposure to chemicals produced by molds – including the volatile compounds that cause moldy odors and chemicals known as mycotoxins – or fungicides and other chemicals that are applied to try to kill mold.

Mold in Higher Education Settings: Remediation is Key

If a community member has allergies, especially to mold, you should:

  • Find out how often the university cleans its building vents.
  • Check if they use high-efficiency filters for air conditioning or ventilation in classrooms to remove mold, pollen, and other particles.
  • Raise awareness that libraries, art rooms, and locker rooms are very common areas for mold to grow because they harbor moisture. Does the university have a special action plan for these zones?
  • Ask about the health of the school HVAC systems. HVAC systems can become inefficient or     release unhealthy air with too much too little moisture. Moreover, relative humidity levels can cause dehydration, increased vulnerability to infection, and other issues.
  • Draw attention to this checklist from the EPA on mold remediation.
  • Suggest that the university begin monitoring indoor air quality in order to be able to identify and address issues in real-time.

An important way to start mold remediation at universities is to reduce indoor humidity (to 40-60%) by:

  • Venting bathrooms, dryers and other moisture-generating sources to the outside
  • Using air conditioners and dehumidifiers
  • Increasing ventilation
  • Using exhaust fans whenever cooking, dishwashing and cleaning

How can you know whether humidity and other conditions are creating mold growth? You need to monitor your air.

This requires a device that can proactively detect what is in your air, and alert you to any issues that arise.

Managing Mold: Put Student and Faculty Safety First

The way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture. If mold is a problem on campus, you must clean up the mold and eliminate sources of moisture. Delaying repairs or cutting back maintenance makes mold problems worse. Many universities and colleges have mold problems because of poor construction, or because they are tightly sealed and poorly ventilated, which prevents moisture from escaping.

Campus leadership should help monitor schools for moisture, water damage, and resulting mold problems.

In the quest to reduce mold in schools, real-time air monitoring is key. By tracking VOC levels, PM2.5 particles in the air, temperature and humidity levels, you can receive a warning when the conditions are present that cause mold to grow, and prevent it at the outset. Students and faculty should advocate for schools to apply IAQ monitoring and share the data to show mitigation and improvement.

If you would like to explore air monitoring within your own home first, please try out Awair Element and the companion free Awair Home app, which can alert you the moment indoor air issues arise and provide tips to improve it. 

If you are concerned about your university, let administrators knowhow important IAQ is, how easy it is to improve it with the right insights, and have them reach out via this form


  • Increased moisture due to painting or carpet cleaning
  • High humidity during the summer
  • No air conditioning in classrooms or heating system operation (or reduced use) when school is not in session.